The Good Doctor
Chekhov on Prozac
by Sonia Kovacs
There may be some people around who wouldn't like The Good Doctor at the Purple Rose, but I don't know who they would be. If you find Chekhov depressing, this is Chekhov on Prozac. If you like Chekhov, you'll enjoy seeing his earlier, more primitive roots.
Nominally by Neil Simon, The Good Doctor is a dramatization of several of Anton Chekhov's most beloved short stories, written when Chekhov was a medical student in Moscow in the 1880s. Simon's contribution is restrained to the point of being almost undetectable, although copyright laws allow him to take full credit on the playbill. (Chekhov himself, surprisingly, isn't even mentioned anywhere in the program, although no one is really trying to hide his part in it. It's in the press releases.) Simon transposed the stories to the stage with a minimum of fuss, adding only a narrator a "writer," presumably Chekhov who introduces and comments on some of the sketches, and a music-hall-type piano player who performs the same function musically.
I could find little explanation of why Simon was moved to write The Good Doctor, which apparently wasn't particularly successful in its 1973 debut. With Barefoot in the Park, The Odd Couple, and several other stage successes behind him, he was well into his career as an original playwright, and that's what he continued to be. Chekhov and Simon seem on the face of it a bit of an odd couple. Some years after writing these jolly stories, Chekhov would transform the nature of modern playwriting from neatly wrapped tragic or comic packages into unresolved shades-of-gray landscapes of character exploration. Simon to some extent came along a half century later and steered American theater back into more accessible territory.
But however and whyever it came to be written, it's an enjoyable way to spend a few hours. The nine skits are mostly broad comedy, but underlying each of them is at least a twang of the other
Chekhov, the one who mixes the funny and the pathetic and won't tell you which is which. Staged simply, in the Chekhovian era (hard to see how it could have been placed in a more modern setting, with all its mistresses and governesses), the characters are universal, even if their predicaments are as quaint as their corsets and spats. The cast is composed of the usual Purple Rose suspects, with the addition of a new intern, Molly Thomas, who completely holds her own with the otherwise all-Equity cast.
The Good Doctor continues its run at Purple Rose through Saturday, December 20.
[Originally published in December, 2003.]